alg-overweight-woman-jpgAs you age the belly fat seems to grow. What used to work to get rid of it doesn’t work anymore. Have you resigned yourself to this and given up?

I thought my healthy lifestyle and fitness would keep my belly fat off and I’d never have to worry about an expanding waistline. Wrong!!! I started my Ironman triathlon career late for most at age 49. The last 10 years I’ve had an Ironman triathlete lifestyle. My first finish line in 2007 I weighed 218 lbs. Then I made a few changes and raced the next 8 years at a race weight of 188 lbs. Then something changed and my last four races in 2014 and 2015 I raced at 198. I didn’t change anything really about my training and diet and gained 10 lbs.

Those 10 lbs caused me to once again search for answers. What I discovered may help you because my changes were simply due to the changes of every aging body.

What Happens When We Age

Hormones

We all have an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) that plays an important role in causing your body to store fat. When LPL is found in quantity, your body will store fat. For men, that location is almost always around the midsection. For the ladies it shifts around the body. When a women is young her LPL is found on the hips and butt and after menopause it shifts to her belly.

When we were younger the fat-storing LPL was held in check because we had higher levels of testosterone (greater in men of course than women). As we have aged our testosterone level has decreased and our fat-storing LPL has increased.  Thus LPL is simply doing it’s job of storing fat. Scientists have yet to come up with an explanation for why this happens.

With increased LPL another hormone called insulin is now increased. Insulin causes muscle and fat cells to absorb glucose, a sugar, from the blood. We need insulin to control our blood sugar levels. If we did not have insulin you’d develop type I diabetes and have to inject insulin in your body every day. The problem is when to much insulin is produced. When your testosterone levels have decreased you lose your sensitivity to insulin, i.e. it just doesn’t work as good. When that happens your pancreas has to work overtime to produce more insulin in an attempt to remove sugar from your blood. When your resistance to insulin increases and more and more of it is produced triggers the onset of type II diabetes.

Science has not answered why this occurs.  But for those of you like me, we now have to find a solution.

3 Solutions to Excess Fat as We Age

Solution #1: Diet

One diet does not fit all. This is a good spot in our discussion to  interject and encourage you to avoid all the hype about some fancy diet that is the cure all to health. What I’ve determined is that you have to find out what is right for you by understanding some science about food and then testing yourself to see if what you are eating is working to reduce your excess fat.

The first thing to do is determine if your diet needs to change by checking how much body fat you currently have. The two inexpensive ways to text how much body fat you have is by using a body fat caliper or a body composition scale.

sequoia-metacal-bodyfat-caliper-banner
Body Fat Caliper

The caliper shown here is affordable and fairly accurate measurement devise. You can purchase these from several vendors online for about $20. You pinch your skin and use the tool to take a measurement at different locations on your body.

Tanita
A Tanita Body Composition Scale

The body composition scale is a quicker and very reliable measurement device that not only checks your body fat but also your weight, lean muscle mass and body water percentage. You simply stand on the scale and through a scan gives you a measurement.

Using both of the these tools I have a range; on the scale it read I had 17.7% body fat and the caliper indicated I had 16%. Those two readings are close enough for me to check the results of changes I’ve made in my diet and form of exercise.

Now that you have a solution to check the amount of fat you’re ready to tackle questions about your diet.

There is no perfect diet that works for everyone. In my experience personalization is the key. You have to eat the diet that is right for you. You may have more or less insulin intolerance. You may have more or less testosterone. The starting place is first to determine if your current diet is working for you.

Here is a list of questions that will give you a starting place to determine if your diet needs to change:

  • Am I becoming fatter, as indicated by measured changes in total body composition (such as calipers or body composition scale) or by my measured increases in belly fat?
  • Do I have frequent illnesses, especially upper-respiratory problems such as head colds and sore throats?
  • If you’re an athlete or work out a lot; is my recovery from high intensity workouts unusually slow compared with how quickly I recovered from similar workouts just a couple of years ago?
  • If you’re an athlete or work out a lot; compared with a few years ago, are my training and race performances declining at a faster rate, as marked by fatigue, poor endurance, and declining results?
  • Have I experienced a measurable loss of muscular strength over the past year or so?
  • Have I been told by my doctor that I am obese, am pre-diabetic, have high blood pressure, or am at high risk for heart disease?

(Questions adapted from Joe Friel, Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life)

If you answer yes to anyone of these questions, your current diet is probably not right for you.

Glycemic Load

The glycemic load (GL) is a way to discover if the foods you are eating are loading excessive amounts of sugar in your blood stream causing high demand for insulin (remember higher demand for insulin due to decreased testosterone is what is going on). Glycemic load is a better way than using the glycemic index. That sugar is then converted to fat. As you get older your muscles become somewhat less sensitive to insulin, but your fat cells do not! That’s good news as you age because you’ll choose to quit living off of high glycemic load foods that are sugary (mostly carbohydrates) that spike insulin and turn into fat and begin to live off of lower glycemic load foods such as fat and protein.

G-load

A link to a more comprehensive list of 750 foods.

The GL rates foods on a scale of 0 to 50. Foods rated:

Greater than 20 = High
11 to 19 = Medium
Less than 10 = Low

The higher the GL the greater chance you have of gaining body fat due to insulin resistance as explained above. The scale doesn’t rate how healthy a food might be. Such as ice cream at a 6. You wouldn’t opt out of eating grapes with a GL of 11 and eat ice cream instead.

The above scale is a guide only for determining the sugar spike that a food creates when  you eat a serving of it. It also doesn’t tell you anything about the health implications of the food either. For example, the micro nutrients of minerals and vitamins are not reflected in the scale.

How to Change Your Diet

In my quest to make changes I learned that the low fat diet trend is a myth created by carbohydrate sellers. Eating healthy fat in place of carbohydrates is actually what I ended up doing. Prior to this change, as I mentioned earlier, I could not get rid of the 10-15 lbs around my middle. I was getting about 50-60% of my calories from clean carbohydrates. Protein in my diet consisted of about 20-25% and fat about 15%. Many of the carbohydrates I was eating then had a higher GL compared to what I’m eating now. Before the carbohydrates I was eating spiked my insulin greater than I could tolerate it. Although they were still low on the GL scale and turned into fat for me, indicated my insensitivity to sugar.

I switched to a diet of about 50-60% fat, 25-30% protein and 10-25% carbohydrate. As an example I’ve started consuming a lot more nuts and sunflower seeds. I also add olive oil (monounsaturated fat), walnut oil (polyunsaturated fat) and coconut oil (saturated fat) to my diet as a way to balance the three fats and make them equal. It’s saturated fat that by itself is not healthy. Balanced with the other two fats saturated fat has many health benefits. What I’ve discovered is I’m more satisfied and I’ve lost my nightly carb craving. I feel much better after a workout and my recovery is much improved and faster.

I also started to lose the belly!

How much protein is right for you to consume.

As you begin to apply this new data and try a different mix of calories you’ll have to test your body fat percentage to see if the changes you’re making are working. Like me, you’ll probably notice some obvious changes because your clothes will fit looser and you’ll feel better.

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Solution #2; Weight and Strength Training

Group of older mature people lifting weights in the gym
Group of older mature people lifting weights in the gym

As you age you lose more muscle mass per year than when you were younger. During your midlife you may have been fortunate and your overall body weight didn’t change much but your waist size got larger. What happened was you lost muscle weight and gained fat weight at about the same rate. This body composition is why I recommend you test your body fat percentage.

When you lose muscle you also lose the ability to burn fat as fuel. As that happens you begin to consume more and more sugar (high GL food) to just feel satisfied.

Because you need muscle to burn fat you’ll need to rebuild muscle with strength/weight training. Depending on your health and fitness would determine the type, duration and how often to train.

For me I had stopped doing the amount of strength training  in needed in the last several years. This year I’ve spent all my time rebuilding strength and muscle and very little time doing slow paced endurance work. I’m taking this year off from racing for this very purpose. I’ve released almost 10 lbs and I’m starting to feel much better. I started weight training slow at first by pushing light weight with more reps until my muscles could take more load.  The first day I could only do 3 sets of 5 pushups! Even 3 years ago I could do 3 sets of 20. Recently I did 3 sets of 10 and the soreness was gone the next day.

In future blogs I’ll go into more detail on how you can develop a good strenght/weight training program.

Solution #3; High Intensity Exercise

heart rateEach year as you age you lose what is called aerobic capacity; the ability your body has to provide a working muscle with needed oxygen to function. Another way to describe this is with a comparison of a youthful individual in their 20s and someone my age, 59, climbing a flight of stairs. If we were to just walk up a flight of stairs more than likely the youth would climb it faster and with less oxygen strain. When I got to the top of the flight I may be more winded them him. While our muscles may have expended the exact same energy output (assuming all other things were equal except our age) the youth would have extra air left over.

We need this aerobic capacity to help the muscle burn more fat instead of sugar. Because muscle function is directly related to it’s fuel source, the better able the muscle can burn fat, the less excess fat you’ll have.

To improve your aerobic capacity you’ll need a combination of easy exercise at a the low heart rate of 180 minus your age, plus an amount of intense and very hard exercise. These small doses of hard exercise are in short duration of high intensity at close to your maximum heart rate. The durations are as short as 30 sec followed by the exact same amount of rest/recovery time. These are called intervals. An interval set may only last 5 minutes. The set may be 10 repetitions of 30 seconds followed by 30 seconds of rest. Or perhaps only 5 repetitions of 1 minute followed by a 1 minute rest interval.

The type of exercise is not the scope of this post and I’ll cover these in subsequent posts.

Conclusion

Belly fat is not necessary if you’re past the age of 50. There are many older people who have beat the belly fat game. You can too but making these three changes in your lifestyle. The changes may be hard at first, especially diet, but the rewards of a focused effort will be worth it.

About the Author Michael Lantz (Big Papa)

Wellness Warrior & Leadership Coach, Speaker, Blogger, Author, Ironman Triathlete Helping others live with more health and joy, pay for their dreams and make a difference in the world! Learn more: http://HealthIsAHabit.live